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Free speech is more than a 'right wing' cause

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

Since the First Amendment protects speech from infringement by government, not one's private employer, the president's pressure by tweet on the National Football League and ESPN raises questions about how much he appreciates constitutional protections of speech that he doesn't like.

Answer: Not so much.

His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, raised similar questions last month in a speech at Georgetown University Law School. He criticized the transformation of America's universities "into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos" and vowed to "protect students' free expression," regardless of political leanings.

Good for him, but his sentiments did little to calm concerns about his boss, who has threatened new libel laws and other impositions on the "dishonest media," as he calls those who report news he does not like to hear.

It was also ironic that Sessions' vow to protect free speech was delivered while protesters were kept outside. But I don't fault him for wanting to avoid the "heckler's veto," as civil liberties lawyers call the uncivil act of shouting down speakers.

Pushing back against hecklers and more serious disrupters of campus speakers is a big reason why the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents last Friday passed a policy pushed by Republican state lawmakers to punish students with suspension or expulsion for repeated disruption of campus speakers with opposing views.

What's disturbing to me is how partisan the issue of free speech has become. As much as Republicans and other conservatives are quick to decry discrimination against their views on campus, it is left to Democrats and other liberals to raise concerns about how students could be unfairly punished for expressions that are dissenting -- such as booing -- that is not necessarily violent or disorderly.

In the end, both political sides have an interest in providing orderly forums for opposing views. It would be helpful if President Trump acted to calm these troubled waters for the good of the country, not stir them up for political gain.

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(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.)

(c) 2017 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
 

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